Source: NMHS Newsletter, February 1985

NO FAIRER PLACE  BY William L. Scott

Unless you are an authentic North Manchester old-timer or unless somebody told you, you would never guess that the Peabody Retirement Community was once the site of the old North Manchester fairground.  Who could imagine the long cattle barn from Seventh Street south to the end of the grounds or the hog barn from Seventh northward?  Who could imagine the 1-1/2-story log cabin or the women’s building with its many displays and wonders?  Who could remember the horse barns, enough to hold 100 race horses?  And what race horses they were; it is said that Charlie Anderson had a horse that was never beaten there.  Who could disagree with such a story anymore?

Gone are the fragrances of the old fair, the pungency of Coney Island hot dogs, the savor of onion-ladened hamburgers, the sharp sweetness of cotton candy, taffy, and cold lemonade.

Few remember anymore how much it cost to get into the fair.  Those living who once went were quite young, and kids “snuck in free,” as anybody knows.  It is said that there was a loose board on the northeast corner of the fairgrounds, particularly convenient to crawl through!

Mel Heeter remembers that if you had 15 cents you were “good for the day.”  The first thing he would do would be to exchange his nickel and dime for 15 pennies.  They felt better in his pocket and gave him the feeling of being “close to rich.”  And those pennies were worth something then…for just pennies he could buy a long piece of taffy or a delicious cone of cotton candy.  For 5 cents he could buy a hot dog or hamburger or a glass of cold lemonade, iced down at Strauss’s ice barn…all to be had at one of those booths under the amphitheatre where paying customers watched (and bet) on the sulky races.

The sulky races were apparently the favorite feature of the fair.  Occasionally celebrities were brought in to open the race; one fellow remembers Frank James, brother of the notorious Jesse, was the main attraction one year.

Besides the thrill of the Ferris wheel and joy of the merry-go-round, the delight of the young, there were side shows; gypsy fortune tellers, booths to win kewpee dolls, games to make you part with you money faster than “a dog could gather fleas.”  It was said that one or two girls would dress up like men each year to get into the show for men only, but as far as anyone knows it never worked.  And the men never said much about what went on in there.

Fairgoers were bombarded with brilliant reds, whites, and blues, as well as a wide assortment of others, as every booth sported a good old American flag, and bright pennants and signs announcing the wares of the booths.  And there were the fall colors of new clothes the young people wore, not very appropriate for a fair, we might think, but then propriety yielded to the great need to show them off.

There were major spectaculars, including the big Wild West show.  One year the amazement lever was enhanced with the presence of a diving elk, prodded to leap from a dirt platform into a waiting pool of water.  Actually the number of shows could barely keep pace with the newspaper hyperbole.  There was the Mangean Troup, “… the world’s greatest acrobats, from New York.”  And there was Kerslake and his pig act, performing along with other “high class acts.”  One ad for the 1923 fair announced, “The North Manchester Fair Association takes great pleasure in presenting this great program and asks your presence this week, where you can spend the day with your friends.  No better place on earth!”

The sounds of the fair included everything from jovial barkers inviting attention to their food stands or sideshows to the accomplished bands of North Manchester, Bippus, and Laketon.  And of course there was laughter.

An interesting pitch man by the name of Rube Wilkins brought more than comic relief to a long day of racing.  Rube was from North Manchester and traveled throughout the U.S., working fairs, but he always was home for the Manchester event.  Rube is remembered as being very good with his calliope and bringing the merchants of the town together for advertising.  He was usually dressed in preposterous brown, homespun overalls.

The large building for women was the site of displays of fine quilts, flowers, and canned and baked goods, before the days of 4-H domination of fairs, mind you, and prepared mostly by adults.

The two railroads, Vandalia and Big Four, ran special trains from Huntington, Wabash, Peru, and Columbia City.  On a single day as many as 10,000 people could be found at the fair.

The North Manchester fair sprang to life in the late 1880’s when a Mr. Shively sold the land to the Fair Association.  Forty years later it vanished.  Dr. L. Z. Bunker who remembers the period believes that several factors had made the fair popular, among which were the relative isolation and the simple life of small town folk and the agricultural economy.  By 1928 the week-long fair was abbreviated to three days with no livestock exhibits.  Most of the third day that year was rained out, including the fireworks display.  That was the final North Manchester fair.

In 1930 North Manchester’s genial benefactor, James Peabody, bought the land to pursue a dream---to establish a gracious home for older persons.  Since the home was opened in 1931 thousands have been blessed through his vision, and the 25 acre fairgrounds have grown more handsome through the meticulous stewardship of that dream.

All the color and excitement and clamor of the fiar is gone forever…except that, late at night and only rarely even then, if you are very quiet and listen very hard, you may yet be treated to the cry of the barker shouting out:

Pink lemonade,
Made in the shade,
By an old maid,
Stirred with a spade,
Come and get it.
Pink lemonade!